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Whenua Hou: Codfish Island and the few Kākāpō Left

Published
February 5, 2021
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AFTER my month on Rakiura/Stewart Island, I left for Whenua Hou, also known as Codfish Island, to work on track maintenance. Even in normal times, to stay on the island you have to go through quarantine, which I did in Invercargill. During the process, they checked for foreign grasses in my gear,so I had made sure to purchase new socks and wash down my pack and wet weather gear.

LINZ via NZ Topo Map, 2017

Before departing for the island, I realised I did not know whether I was flying there by aeroplane or helicopter. I was petrified because in the 1990s I had taken a tourist helicopter ride at the Shotover (Queenstown) and I had felt like I was going to fall out of the sky. To my relief, we took a four-seater plane from Invercargill Airport. However, the weather was wet and windy and even the experienced pilot was silently sweating when we took two attempts to land on the beach.

The track maintenance on Whenua Hou was hellish. We were set to work ripping up seventy metres of wire-meshed boardwalk with crowbars and staple-gunning down plastic tread in its place – all this done in the rain, of course! My back just about gave out after doing it for five days.

The kākāpō breeding season on Whenua Hou is a busy affair. It begins with the male kākāpō’s booming song, a mating call designed to attract the females. Some males are successful at this, but for the less adept, artificial insemination is also being used. This is essential because some breeding-age males, like Richard Henry’s son Sirocco, were hand-reared and now prefer human company to the company of other birds! Poor Sirocco may never mate with another kākāpō but he has other pleasures – he is famous for making out with Stephen Fry’s co-presenter’s head on a British nature documentary!

During the breeding season, rangers frequent the wooden walkways on the island for about two months, travelling between nests and monitoring the birds. Once they are nesting, volunteers camp outside the burrows and monitor the comings and goings of the parent. There are cameras placed in every nest to monitor the incubation period.

Once the eggs hatch, each chick is like gold. They are weighed, hand-fed and all the growth processes are overseen. I met some of the kākāpō juveniles during the day as they were being weighed. Hand-rearing does occur, but as it can affect their breeding potential later, it is preferable that they are raised in the wild.

The success of a breeding season depends on the growth of rimu berries on the island. These are a key food of the kākāpō, which only breeds in years when rimu berries are abundant (‘mast’ years).

The rimu is a droopy, cypress-like conifer known to early settlers as the red pine. Its droopy quality also reminded the first Māori of seaweed, an older meaning of the word rimu.

Botanically speaking, the rimu berry is actually a pinecone. Though we normally think of pinecones as hard and woody, some Southern Hemisphere conifers have soft, colourful cones attractive to birds, which eat the cone and spread the seeds in their droppings. These conifers are called podocarps, from the Greek words for ‘foot fruit’. And that’s the group to which the rimu belongs.

For more on the intertwined life history ofthe kākāpō and the rimu, see:

meaningoftrees.com/2013/08/06/rimu-dacrydium-cupressinum

Around Whenua Hou you see a lot of rimu berry collection points. Though much effort is made to feed the kākāpō, the rangers tend to lose a lot of weight while on the job!

It is amazing to think that kākāpō once actually lived all through Aotearoa/New Zealand until only quite recently. How anyone could stand by and see a species almost wiped out is unfathomable to me. During the 1890s, one man called Richard Henry (the namesake of the aforementioned kākāpō) attempted to transfer a number of the birds to Resolution Island, where he was working as caretaker. Unfortunately, ferrets and stoats arrived on the island in 1900 and decimated the populations he had established.

After working so hard, I did a lot of hiking around the island and took photographs of yellow-eyed penguins, Sealers Bay,and the view across to nearby Stewart Island.

When it came time to leave, we had to take the helicopter out because the winds were too strong for fixed-wing aircraft. I silently freaked out but let no one know how I felt.

To my surprise it was a far calmer ride than the aeroplane. I loved the flight over Stewart Island, and we made a very smooth landing in Invercargill.

If you liked the post above, check out my new book about the South Island! It's available for purchase from this website.

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